By Dan Shanoff
That "Charlie Sheen used steroids during the filming of Major League!" was the most interesting news of the day is either incredibly awesome or impossibly depressing.
Perhaps it will distract you from the NBA lockout that is going to start tonight at midnight and last... well, it might last all season. I'd bet that it will certainly last through the end of the year.
Here's the thing: The union will end up caving. At least, they will before the owners do. Hard cap? OK, as a fan I don't care (frankly, if anything, as a fan I think I want a hard cap, because it will reward the teams that are the smartest, not just the ones who can spend $90 million to field a title team). Non-guaranteed contracts? Works for the NFL union. Clawing back salaries? Two words: Rashard Lewis. Go right ahead. (Nevermind it was an idiot owner who OK'ed his contract.)
But here's the real (and ironic) reason the NBA owners will keep their boot on the throat of the union until they get what they want: The surging popularity of the league -- the marquee attraction of LeBron and the Heat -- means that whenever the league returns (even after a full year away), the fans will return at or near last year's levels, exceeding last year's levels by 2013.
The avid fans? They'll be the first ones back. These are the same ones telling you how dire it will be if the league shuts down. Nevermind that they will go right back to promoting the league as soon as it starts back up. And the casual fans? They will do exactly what they did last season: During the regular season, they will watch the Heat, because the Heat are so damn interesting. During the playoffs, they will tune in because the playoffs are fun; they are even more fun if the Heat go far.
And, without diminishing the valid points of the players' union -- who I certainly sympathize with, if don't think they'll succeed on their own behalf -- the league will see a bigger hit to its fan interest from the Heat losing in the conference semifinals of the playoffs than it will if it misses four months and is reduced to a 40-game regular season followed by playoffs (or no season at all, then returning in the fall of 2012).
I suspect the NBA owners know this -- know that the media might make it SEEM dire, but that in reality, the fans will come right back. Hell, this fall? Only the die-hard NBA fans (who, again, will be back at the front of the line WHENEVER the league starts back up) will be paying attention. Everyone else will be watching the NFL and college football until February, when they will finally re-engage with the NBA.
I think the players will fold. I think the league will get its hard cap (however they want to position it - "flex" or whatever nonsense euphemism they use). I think the league will get its non-guaranteed contracts. I think the league will cut existing salaries.
And I think fans will find all of that entirely tolerable, just as I think that the players will learn to live with it -- stars will still be paid a ton, with everyone else nibbling at the margins; that does not seem unreasonable in a star-driven product. I think fans will return like nothing happened; ignore the hysterics in the NBA media. "Armageddon?" Oh, please, spare us.
Now: Is the NFL ready to get the deal done already or what?